Everything But the Phone…

I rarely think twice about calling my smartphone a phone. Though every once in a while, I pause, thinking about what exactly my phone has become. Sometimes it feels strange to call it a phone, when it seems to do everything except act like an actual phone!

What exactly am I carrying around in my pocket all day?

  • A news source
  • Internet connection with access to all kinds of resources
  • Communication (audio, visual, and written)
  • Music
  • Books (audio and electronic)
  • Podcasts
  • Movies
  • Camera
  • Banking
  • Shopping
  • Calendar and Organizing
  • And so much more!

No wonder we’re on our “phones” so much. They do everything for us. And we do everything on them. How did the humble phone transform into a pocket-sized device for everything, but still retain the same name? If I think back to the phone I grew up with the two things aren’t even comparable. My childhood phone had rotary dial. A short, curly cord came out of the base, literally tethering me to the device. It was heavy with a chunky receiver and only came in plain, solid colors. Soon push buttons replaced the rotary dial, then cordless capabilities. Eventually the phone became mobile, but how it morphed into the mini computers and cameras is somewhat astonishing.

Before I got my first smartphone, I couldn’t understand why people were on them so much. They are fascinating and distracting, but I didn’t realize how reliant we would be on them for everything. It must seem strange to children why adults on on their phones so much. For today’s kids “being on the phone” means something totally different than it did for me. As a kid, I spent hours on the phone chatting with my friends late into the night. Along with the rotary phones and new-age push-buttons, we also didn’t initially have things like “call-waiting”, where another call could break through. Or forward to voice mail. Instead, the person calling would get a busy signal. Nothing else. No other options existed to reach someone since we didn’t have email, social media, texting, or messaging. Somehow, we still managed to reach each other, make plans, hang out, and connect.

When we get the next generation of devices, which I’m sure will be implanted in our bodies or brains somehow, will we still call them phones? Or add “smart” to the front of whatever we call it?

Maintaining Momentum

Tasked with several large scale, clean-up projects and somewhat urgent repairs, I’m finding it hard to stay focused. Where to start? How to prioritize? And most importantly, how to maintain the momentum once I get going?

With the amount of backlog crushing in, finding and maintaining a foothold feels daunting. At times my pace seems glacial. Alongside the pace is the sensation of never making progress anywhere. This sentiment persists, despite accomplishing a number of tasks. Time slowed as we stumbled through the pandemic. It feels like a bad and distant (two-year long) afterthought, except for all the things that kept piling up during the dark times. Though I should confess, some of the work bogging me down is self-inflicted.

For example, this summer I decided to transform the entire backyard into an oasis of native, pollinator-friendly plants. The catch is that I don’t enjoy long hours of gardening. And I’m more than a little clueless. Of course I could have planned the work in sections, but every year the invasive species remain, they get stronger, thicker, and denser. My solution, thus far, has been to work in small installments when I can. And outsource what I can afford to the professionals.

Other projects, however, are critical and require immediate care. Last fall my nose twitched madly at the rank odor of mold in the house. After some olfactory sleuthing we discovered the culprit, a leaky basement window. Naturally, this necessitated prompt action resulting in the removal of all the moldy parts from the affected room. The warming weather prompted me to start the long process of securing a contractor to get the window fixed. Since the pace is slow waiting for people to respond and prepare assessments, it’s easy to let this vital project slip a little. Also, the window is in the far corner of the basement and it doesn’t smell like mold anymore.

Lately my strategy is to sprint when I can. As soon as I have a bit of free time and energy, I set the timer for at least 20 minutes, crank up the tunes, and work like crazy. When I can’t devote time to physical work, I take mental notes. Then plan out my next major task when the time is available. It gets frustrating with so many starts and stops, but slowly I’m seeing a few signs of improvement.

Double-Edged Ethics of AI

I recently read a letter to The Ethicist in the New York Times, “Can I Use A.I. to Grade My Students’ Papers?”. For the writer, the dilemma stemmed from restricting students to use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to write papers, yet use AI to grade the papers. Would that be a double standard?

The teacher made efforts to prevent students from using AI to write the papers. One strategy was to break up the assignment into different working sessions. Some of the sessions were during class time. However, the teacher could still tell some students managed to use AI for the final version. After making efforts to prevent students from using AI, could this teacher benefit from the technology for help with grading?

Last month I faced my own AI dilemma while hiring for two student positions. I received dozens of applicants for both openings. One position had over 100 applicants. I received a nearly 400-page compiled pdf for some of the resumes. Naturally, the time to review and shortlist candidates was short. Plus, who has time to manually review that many. Skimming through cover letters and resumes, I started to get a feel for which ones had been AI-generated vs. customized by hand. One stretch of cover letters were nearly identical, perhaps because they all used the same AI platform and prompt. Would it have been unethical for me to use AI to screen candidates if they were using AI to craft cover letters and maybe even resumes?

Although not quite the same as the teacher’s dilemma, it made me pause. Candidates aren’t forbidden from using AI. For some candidates, it might even help them. As the hiring manager, it meant I had a lot of boring letters to skim. Using AI may have made it easy for some students to apply, resulting in an increase of applicants. But the real question is, would AI have been good at detecting the top candidates? The only way to find out is to try it!

As for the teacher, The Ethicist didn’t find any issue in using AI to grade papers, provided the AI did a good job. The students needed to learn how to think critically and write. The teacher, however, already knew how to grade papers. Using AI to do something the teacher already mastered would leave time available to prepare something different for the students.

The Resurgence of the QR Code

Almost 10 years ago, when I first started my business, many people told me to use QR codes. QR stands for “quick response.” The QR code typically looks like a barcode, but in a square shape. When you point your camera at it, a link appears directing you to the information.

Ten years ago I thought about it, but didn’t see them being used that much. Here and there I would see a QR code. It was common enough that I knew what they were and how to use them. But not so common that I saw them everywhere. Now it seems the QR codes are everywhere. I’m not sure if the resurgence started with Covid, or maybe just a coincidence. In particular, I often notice QR codes with restaurant menus.

This past weekend I stayed in a hotel. Typically, a menu for the hotel lobby restaurant would be a paper brochure nestled with the welcome information in the room. This time, however, I found a sticker on the desk with a QR code.

Last week I went to a ramen place for lunch. When I entered the restaurant the host handed me a small, stiff card with a QR code to view the menu. As another example, a very popular ice cream place in the downtown core where I live has a QR code available to review the menu at various spots while you wait in line.

For many reasons, this is a great option for viewing menus. Providing a QR code, instead of something printed, means the restaurant can make changes instantly. Changes might include prices, daily specials, new additions, or even correcting typos. The QR code is less expensive than printing and laminating menus, plus it provides flexibility and instant updates.

From a practical point of view, they’re also easy to keep clean. Handling printed menus can leave them stained, dirty, or greasy. But with a QR code, everybody is looking at their own personal device. It also allows people to zoom in, if they have problems reading the tiny print on a paper menu.

The only downside is the tiny smartphone screen to read larger menus, even if you can magnify the print. It could take longer to review and scroll the different sections on a phone vs. a print menu. However, I think the trend is here to stay.

Mom Wisdom in the Digital Age

I would imagine when my mom and grandmothers had young children, other moms acted as the source of truth. Or maybe a trusted professional such as a doctor or school teacher. The information may not have been high quality, or even accurate, but it was accomplished with a small amount of transactions. The limited supply meant people had to trust, seek out alternative options, or maybe even (gasp!) make connections with more people.

In those days, internet wasn’t around. Phone calls were expensive. Social media maybe existed in science fiction, but certainly not in real life. As for photos, those were also largely inaccessible. Most people didn’t have cameras. If they did, the camera needed to be focused manually and developing film took time. In short, nothing was instant.

Now we live in an abundance of information. Mom “wisdom” abounds in so many forms it’s hard to know which one to trust or seek out first. Moms these days can take their pick of following other moms on social media of their choice. They can join “mom” groups or search on the internet for millions of options about anything related to their kids. While there is “something for everyone”, it can be difficult to discern what that something should be, and even if it’s valuable. I mean, if it’s for your kid, you probably want something high quality, accurate, and reliable. It should also be instant and in bite-size amounts for easy consumption.

Not to mention, all these manicured postings depicting something unrealistic and unobtainable, have the potential to amplify competition and mom-shaming. It’s hard to know where to turn, who to trust, or a good starting place.

With mother’s day here, I would encourage the moms out there to get back to the basics when it comes to information sources. Start small and meaningful. Ask moms you know, including your own! They are a fountain of valuable wisdom and insights, ingenuity, crafty problem solving, and innovation. Mom hacks are real and often very useful. Even if you don’t agree with everything, it’s a solid starting point founded on something other than random internet searching.

You’re doing a great job! In fact, you’re probably doing a better job than you think. Now that’s something you won’t hear often from internet searches, but you can hear from real life connections.

Happy Mother’s Day!

Ever Changing Definition of Privacy

Cameras are pervasive. We carry them in our pockets. They’re posted to lamp posts and store fronts. Some people have them in and around their homes. Or attached to their doorbells. In some cases, they can be helpful. For example, the doorbell camera is useful for seeing who is at the door, or to view a package delivery. However, the more cameras we see around us, the more we normalize being on display 24/7.

Although I haven’t read about the impact of being around so many cameras non-stop, I believe this has altered our perception of privacy. Sometimes it feels as though there isn’t much left now that we can all be filmed anytime, anywhere, by anyone! Last year, on vacation, one of my family members started spontaneously dancing in front of a store to some music playing. I was enjoying the impromptu show. Then looked up to notice a stranger, stopped at a red light, whipping out his camera to film the dance moves, too. I immediately jumped in between to block the view.

The whole scene lasted only a few seconds, but left me feeling uncomfortable. All I kept thinking was that’s the kind of silly, random video that ends up on Tik Tok, Meta, or Instagram with some stupid caption. A random video of somebody having a bit of spontaneous fun, forever captured on the internet. Honestly, the sort of thing that doesn’t need recording.

I also kept thinking, there’s no way for us to protect ourselves from this happening. Anybody could take a picture of anyone without warning at a good time or at the worst time. We’re powerless to do anything about that. I always felt upset when my friends posted pictures of me on social media, even if they didn’t tag me. But then again, how could I ask them not to, especially if it was a group photo. It’s awkward to never be in group photos. Even avoiding group photos isn’t a guarantee your image won’t end up posted somewhere you don’t want it.

I don’t see there’s anyway to stop people from taking photos of what and who they want, when they want. But I do see future opportunities with AI to automatically start blurring people. Or maybe because it keeps happening all the time, people like me will normalize it and stop feeling so creeped out.